Happy 40th Anniversary to The Knack’s debut album Get The Knack, originally released June 11, 1979.
Released forty years ago in June 2019, The Knack’s Get The Knack sold over one million copies in roughly six weeks which made it one the most successful debut albums in history. It also marked the beginning of one of the most precipitous drops in popularity in rock history. The Knack’s fall from grace can be best described as one of the most egregious cases of mismanagement in music history. The band’s record label Capitol Records is not without fault either, but I’ll get to that later. Let’s start at the beginning when The Knack weren’t even signed to a label.
In the summer of 1978, songwriting partners Doug Fieger (lead vocals, guitar) and Berton Averre (lead guitar, backing vocals) recruited drummer Bruce Gary and bassist Prescott Niles to join the band. Niles joined the group a week before their first gig. In the months before the new additions, Fieger and Averre shopped their demos around to different record labels, not even receiving a hint of interest.
The band pressed on by embarking on a continuous string of gigs on the crowded and very competitive Los Angeles club circuit in June of 1978. Amongst those clubs were the Whiskey and the Troubadour where they had residences. As the months rolled by, the band got tighter and they began to develop a following. In the documentary Getting The Knack, producer Mike Chapman noted, “I was aware of them, as everybody else in L.A. was, because there were lines of kids around the block to go see them at their shows.”
One of those kids was 17-year-old Sharona Alperin. Also amongst the followers of The Knack at the Troubadour was Bruce Springsteen. This would begin to open the floodgates of interest from record labels. Fieger once remarked, “Bruce Springsteen gets up onstage with us on a Friday night, and on Monday, we have 14 record offers.”
Six months of steady gigs finally paid off and in January 1979, The Knack signed with Capitol Records. Coming off of producing Blondie’s Parallel Lines (1978), Mike Chapman came on board to produce Get The Knack. The album was recorded in April 1979 and in the spirit of recapturing the energy of their live shows, the LP was recorded in just under two weeks for $18,000. Considering how it was the norm for bands to spend months and tons of money in the studio to record an album, Capitol was very pleased with the modest cost. Here’s where the story begins to get crazy.
Capitol Records initiated a heavy-duty promotional campaign just prior to the album’s release. The label took note of the fact that one of the band’s influences was the Beatles, also on Capitol Records. They, as well as the band, took the concept and ran with it. The Knack had it written into their contract that the album had to have the ‘60s Capitol Records rainbow label as opposed to the purple with silver letters version used in 1979. Capitol Records took it even a step further by using a black and white photo of the band on the album front cover like the Beatles’ first Capitol LP Meet The Beatles! with a recreation of a scene from the film A Hard Day’s Night on the back complete with the band’s name on the bass drum.
With all these elements falling into place, the universe decided to get in on the act. Get The Knack went Gold in just 13 days after its release, a feat not accomplished at Capitol Records since 1964. Care to guess which group and which album reached that goal? Of course, it was the Beatles’ Meet the Beatles!
By August, Get The Knack was number one on the Billboard album charts and its lead single “My Sharona” would go on to spend six weeks at number one on the singles chart. In the summer of 1978, “My Sharona” was the song you could not avoid. It was playing everywhere. The song is one of those tunes that you could identify immediately upon hearing it. “My Sharona” is a great power pop song that uses elements of ‘60s pop mixed with excellent musicianship, especially Averre’s guitar solo in the middle of the song. For me, it ranks high on the list of best rock guitar solos of all time. Fieger has stated the drum rhythm was inspired by Smokey Robinson & the Miracles’ “Going to a Go-Go.” The song’s namesake, the aforementioned Sharona Alperin, was also Fieger’s inspiration for most of the songs on the album.
Surprisingly, the song tied for number six on the Village Voice Pazz & Jop Critics Poll with Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk.” With all this success, you’d think The Knack had an easy go of it, but this was not the case.
The Knack’s management made what is arguably the dumbest move a management team could ever make. It ranks up there with Colonel Tom Parker denying Elvis Presley a chance to co-star with Barbra Streisand in a remake of A Star is Born. If you’re managing a band that has a number one album, number one single and is on tour, the one thing you don’t do is deny all interview requests. The Knack gave no interviews that summer and their management did not allow them to go on American Bandstand. Now say what you will about American Bandstand, but nearly every famous act has made a stop there, including The Jackson 5, Prince, Madonna and even Public Image Ltd (by the way, you must find that clip on YouTube).
Sadly, the band went along with this strategy and the label sat back and did not intervene. Needless to say, the critics did not let this one die easily. Without any contact with the band, the critics were allowed to craft their own narratives. They were no longer talented musicians who paid their dues for years before forming The Knack. They were considered hacks thrown together by a major label, a cheap Beatles knock-off. If these critics actually listened to the record instead of their hurt feelings, they would have realized that The Knack had more in common with The Kinks than the Beatles.
The final nail in the coffin was a campaign started by San Francisco artist Hugh Brown called Knuke The Knack. In the Getting The Knack film, Brown said, “They were so over-hyped, I thought I’ll do something that’s kind of obnoxious and kind of funny. Then it just snowballed.” By the fall of 1979, they were pretty much kryptonite. Despite the fact that their next single “Good Girls Don’t” went to number fifteen on the singles chart, Get The Knack was the object of scorn and everyone moved on.
In 1994, the universe gave The Knack a reprieve as a result of “My Sharona” appearing in the film Reality Bites. With newfound momentum behind the 15-year-old single, it was re-released and featured in heavy rotation on MTV and VH1. Gone was the vitriol and anger attached with the band. In an interview with The Los Angeles Times, Fieger stated, "The criticism leveled at The Knack was specious from the get-go. The backlash was about our success, not what we were doing. Once you sell a lot of records, you’re no longer cool. They said we were a bunch of hype, but I think Capitol Records spent a total of $50,000 promoting the first album, which is nothing. The perception of us, because it happened so fast, was that it couldn’t be real. But it was.” Fieger was right.
There’s so much more to The Knack than “My Sharona.” Songs like “Oh, Tara” and “Frustrated” were lost in the frenzy and self-inflicted wounds. The Knack deserved much better. The album’s opening song “Let Me Out” may be the album’s best track and a great way to open an album.
Over the years, it’s been revealed that fans of Get The Knack included the Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones and Kurt Cobain. No one will ever mistake Fieger and Averre for Lennon and McCartney and yes, the album at times sounds like it was written in the voice of a horny teenaged boy, but it’s time we forgive The Knack for sins mostly conjured up by angry journalists. Get The Knack is a damn good record. Listen without prejudice.